World Autism Awareness Day

The autism advantage: Why a Calgary IT consulting firm seeks out those on the spectrum

An interview with Meticulon CEO Garth Johnson
Photo: Garth Johnson speaking at Capital Ideas forum in Calgary, 2016. (Photo: Capital Ideas Edmonton)
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Approximately one in 66 Canadian children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex neurodevelopmental condition that impacts social skills, communication and behaviour.

While the incidence of autism has increased over the last two decades, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities remains far higher than any other sector in the country — with the lowest employment rate reported among those with developmental disabilities, such as ASD.

For World Autism Awareness Day, Ricochet sat down with Garth Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of IT consulting firm Meticulon, to discuss why he actively seeks out people on the spectrum for consultant positions and why he thinks autism is more of a boon than a bane when it comes to business. To date, Meticulon has employed 43 people with ASD over the past five years.

Ricochet: First off, can you tell me a little about Meticulon and what your consultants do?

Garth Johnson: Meticulon essentially provides quality assurance, software testing and big data analysis for IT companies, so our consultants work within an agile software development environment. Typically they work with developers to test the code and business case for new software.

Why do you exclusively hire people with autism for consultant positions?

GJ: We’ve found people with high-functioning autism are capable of running through tests more quickly and proficiently than their neurotypical counterparts. People with ASD have a logical approach to things. Moreover, their focus, visual memory and drive to complete tasks — all hallmarks of autism — can make them exceedingly proficient testers.

They tend to think about things, such as software, not in terms of what they should do, but rather what they are doing, and will come up with scenarios others haven’t considered because of this approach. So, they bring a degree of accuracy and thoroughness to the test case environment that others don’t.

How do you go about finding your consultants?

GJ: Often they find us. The autism community in Canada is fairly well networked, so we have relationships with universities, colleges, autism agencies and organizations. Whenever we put out the call that we’re looking for new employees, we get dozens of resumes. Of course, it wasn’t like this in the beginning, but word of mouth is powerful and now we get applications from all over the world.

What is the onboarding process like, and are there any significant caveats in terms of having such a degree of neurodiversity in your workforce?

Autism as a label is not very helpful.

GJ: We screen specifically for the skill sets needed to be a consultant at Meticulon, and then conduct a series of tests to identify the areas of capability that can be capitalized on. As part of our onboarding process, all our consultants are provided training and counselling to ensure they have the necessary workplace support needed to reach their full potential. It does require an investment on our part; however, as business returns have shown, it pays off.

Where did the idea to hire consultants with ASD come from?

GJ: From my own experience in the tech industry. I’ve met and worked alongside people with autism at other companies. They were gifted, but I saw them struggle and they were often hired away. I decided I wanted to start a for-purpose business that proved people with autism could excel, and I think we’ve done that.

What do you think is the biggest barrier that prevents capable people with autism from achieving employment?

GJ: Autism as a label is not very helpful. There’s a very broad spectrum of people who fall into the category of ASD; they all are different, and all have unique abilities. Unfortunately, there’s a persistent notion that people with autism aren’t functional or can’t perform skilled work. This is a prejudice that can only be combated through education and exposure.

In our early days, most — if not all — of our clients were companies who had employees with family members who had autism or were very invested in developing a socially diverse and inclusive work culture. Now, it’s totally different. People hire us because we are good at what we do and we have a proven track record of success. We barely even talk about autism anymore when we’re taking on contracts.

How do you suggest employers become more inclusive?

GJ: First off, the HR interviewing process is broken. Questions such as “Tell me about a time you experienced conflict” or “What's your greatest weakness?” — those questions are rubbish and measure invisible things. They aren’t really about whether or not a person can do the job, and it’s the type of question a person with ASD will struggle with during an interview.

For instance, we’ve come across many gifted individuals, a lot of whom have a university education, but have never worked because they can’t navigate the interview process or the social constructs of the workplace. We need to change this.

What do you think it will take to close the employment gap for those with ASD?

GJ: I think if it’s really is going to happen, it’s got to happen on a macro level. Change needs to come from businesses. If we can work with companies to demonstrate where people with different abilities can bring value and a return on investment, we’ll see a chance.

We have a labour shortage in Canada, yet there are tens of thousands of high-functioning, educated people with autism who are not working because no one understands how to make them fit in, or are not even looking at them as a potential resource.

Anything else you’d like to add?

GJ: It’s important to note that while not every person with autism has the capabilities suited for this sector, there’s a place for them. I have a son with autism who would be considered a mid-level functioning person. He will never work for Meticulon, but he has other abilities that can be leveraged, and I know he will one day have a job.

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